Travel Series: Key West, The Tastes
Cuban coffee is synonymous with Key West. Long before lattes and cappuccinos, there were cafés con leche. When the Cubans came to Key West they brought their culture, their food and of course, their cafés con leche. How do I describe cafés con leche? First, they are always too hot, skin will form on the top several times…but once you get past the heat, you are in for a treat. The debate rages on if it should be “Café Bustela” or “Pinion” coffee; but the key is the right mix of coffee and whole milk. There are a number of institutions in Key West for café con leche. I prefer Sandy’s, in the Cuban district on White Street…other locals prefer 5 Brothers on Southard, where the Conchs conduct their politics. Sandy's uses more milk than 5 Brothers and is open 24 hours. Except when it is closed, after all this is Key West. On Christmas Eve there will be a handwritten sign saying that they are closed until December 26th; those 36 hours seem like an eternity. 5 Brothers closes on Sundays, enough said.
Key West is also home to hog fish. Hog fish are a very ugly snapper fish that eat crustaceans; making their flavor like a lobster with a very soft flaky, texture. Hog fish must be speared, so they are sustainable and not always available. Restaurants like to brag about how they make their hog fish, mango salsa, wine sauces, corn relishes…it is all delicious.
Key West would not be Key West without Key Lime pie. Each restaurant likes to create its own. At the tourist end of Duval you will get the traditional Key Lime pies with cream topping. Other restaurants use meringue or, my favorite, marshmallow. Some restaurants use tradition graham cracker crust, others use cups and another uses a gingerbread crust. Make it your mission to find your favorite Key Lime pie. For me, it is Café Solei, on Southard Street. It is a full service restaurant that specializes in fish, but I go for the desserts, for me, their Key Lime pie is the best on the island. You decide!
The restaurants here are delicious and plentiful, lots of local seafood and fresh ingredients… and three companies that make their own ice cream. My favorite is Flamingo Crossing at the southern end of Duval. In addition to traditional flavors, Flamingo Crossing uses local island fruits, such as Sour Sop. I believe that this is the best ice cream in the U.S., but you be the judge.
I would be remiss in not listing some restaurants; I am equally hesitant to do so, because each year another great restaurant appears that becomes my new favorite. But let me give you a list that you can start with:
Louie’s Back Yard & Louie’s Back Yard Upper Deck. Louie’s Back Yard (Casa Marina district). There are actually two Louies’ Back Yards. The bottom floor hosts more traditional French food, make sure that you have a reservation. My favorite is the Upper Deck. This does not take reservations, so get there early (around 5 p.m.). It is a Tapas style menu and hosts the most beautiful view on the island. Everything is delicious, and make sure you try the popcorn, which changes daily and is an interesting combination of tastes. My recommendation is the fish that they are offering for the day. As for the desserts, they have their own version of Key Lime pie, with a gingersnap crust.
Blue Heaven. (Bahama Village) Blue Heaven is a Key West institution, well known to Conchs and tourists alike. The rustic setting shows its roots, complete with cockfighting, drinking and typical Key West “anything goes.” Blue Heaven is famous for its quirky setting, its breakfasts and its long lines (they do not take reservations). Get there early (it opens at 8 a.m.), on weekends the wait can easily be an hour. Its unique outdoor setting, complete with chickens, is a treat for everyone who wants to experience the old Key West and the food is fantastic. For breakfast, don’t miss their varieties of Eggs Benedict and, of course, their banana bread. What is not known is that their dinners are equally delicious, but again, they don’t take reservations, so be prepared to get there early or to wait. I think that their snapper dish is the best snapper on the island; my daughter is addicted to the pork medallions. Their sister restaurant, Saluté, is on Higgs Beach in the Casa Marina section, the menu is different, but both places serve their version of Key Lime Pie, with meringue that reaches the sky.
Azur (Old Town) located on Fleming Street. While Azur serves lunch and dinner, the meal that puts it on my list is Sunday brunch where you will find unique versions of traditional breakfast fare, including Key Lime French toast…it should be a dessert it is so good.
Seven Fish (Old Town). While not an institution, Seven Fish has been in the island for about 30 years, which sort of makes it an institution for Key West. You can expect great fish, I love their curried snapper, but it also has a meatloaf that my husband never failed to order. Instead of Key Lime pie, try their strawberry pie, but not if you a lactose intolerant.
Santiago’s Bodega (Bahama Village). New to the “institutions list,” but deservedly so. It is a Tapas style restaurant, I recommend that you try their fresh Sangria and I have yet to find a dish that is not fantastic. Get a reservation as soon as you can, since as it books up quickly.
Sarabeth’s (Old Town). New to Key West, Sarabeth’s has its roots in NYC. Its menu is also fresh, but I am recommending it for Sunday dinner fried chicken. Their fried chicken is only available on Sunday and since they do not take reservations on Sunday, the line forms early. It may just be the best fried chicken that you have ever tasted. Their Key Lime pie is also delicious, more traditional with a cream topping, but I love it.
Learn more about Key West in these posts from Angela:
The Tastes (this one)
The People of Key West
My Favorite Inhabitants
My Second Favorite Inhabitants -- Flora
Key West Quirkiness
Key West's Spirituality